Most Civil War Generals were either Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, or political generals who had used political influence to gain high command, but Confederate Major General William Loring was neither. He never attended a military school and he was far from a political man. He had come up through the ranks, he began fighting the Seminoles in Florida at fourteen, while still a boy he ran away to Texas and fought in the Texas Revolution, until his father found him and brought him home. Schooled in Virginia he was admitted to the Florida Bar and served one term in the Florida State House of Representatives. Then at the beginning of the Mexican- American War he returned to his true vocation, war! Leading a charge in Mexico his left arm was so badly wounded that it required amputation. It is said that he refused any anesthesia, and calmly smoked a cigar as the surgeon removed the mangled limb. In the years between the wars he was for a time in command of the Oregon Territory and again fought Indians, this time in the west. He also traveled in Europe studying their military theories and tactics.
At the beginning of the most un-civil war he probably had more actual combat experience than most of his contemporaries, perhaps for this reason he was contemptuous of West Pointers in general and Lt. General John C. Pemberton in particular. Then as now, one’s position in life often has little to do with actual ability and much more to do with the politics of life. Loring was not West Point; however, neither was he a very political man. He once went over the head of “Stonewall” Jackson. This so infuriated Jackson that he threatened to resign. Another incident provoked Robert E. Lee to say “there is no room in this army for that man”. Loring landed in Mississippi under the Command of Lt. General John C. Pemberton.
If one has little respect for the likes of Lee and Jackson, what hope would a Pennsylvania expatriate like Pemberton have with this man in his command? Despite his problems with authority, Loring was well liked by his men and preformed quite well on the battlefield, including turning back the Union fleet at Fort Pemberton in the Mississippi Delta in the winter of 1863.
One might stop and wonder if things might have been different if Loring had been in overall command?
War is, of course, the ultimate team sport and a man who is not a team player is often more a liability than an asset no matter how high his individual skill level. In the Vicksburg Campaign this insubordination comes home to roost at the Battle of Champions Hill on May 16th 1863 (see Campaign in a Nutshell part 3). First, he refuses to send reinforcements to help S.D. Lee’s Brigade because of the action to his front, which amounts to little more than a stalemated artillery duel, thus the Confederates are overwhelmed and flanked by Grant’s troops.
Had it not been for the ingenuity of Pemberton’s chief engineer, Vicksburg might have fell that very day. Then as Pemberton’s battered army retreats across the newly repaired bridge across flooded Baker’s Creek General Loring’s division --- likely about 6-8,000 men --- had the task of holding this bridge as Grant’s much larger Army pressed close behind. By the time, Loring’s Division is ready to cross the bridge the Union fire was too close and intnse, and Loring wisely decides not to risk having his men captured or worse slaughtered at the bottleneck of the bridge and retreats to the southwest paralleling Baker’s Creek.
He was not pursued as Grant was intent on capturing Pemberton, Loring’s men get bogged down in the swampy land around Jackson Creek and lose their artillery but instead of crossing the Big Black River at Baldwin’s or Hall’s Ferry, both of which were just a few miles further southwest, he turns east and circles around and joins, Joseph E. Johnson north of Jackson. Effectively taking his entire division out of the fight for Vicksburg. Pemberton is already desperately short handed and this loss just makes matter worse. While one can play “what if” all day, who is to say that Loring’s division might not have been just enough to turn the tide?